Strength endurance: Power without mass: how strength and plyometric training can boost endurance running performance
As a middle or long distance runner (or running coach) do you include strength sessions in your weekly training programme? In my experience, as a strength and conditioning coach working with elite athletes, those who don’t have either had negative experiences of weight training or hold certain prejudices – eg that strength training will lead to increased weight or interfere in some way with running training.
Given my position, it should come as no surprise to learn that I believe strength training is important for middle and long distance runners. However, its beneficial effects, backed up by research, will be experienced only if it is performed in the right amounts, using the correct choices of exercises.
Athletes and coaches should always have an open-minded approach to tweaking and improving their training programmes. At the same time, they should also question the benefits of any new or additional training method. Why is this kind of training good for my event? What is the exact benefit that I will gain from it? How can I successfully fit it into my routine?
For endurance runners, high volume mixed with high intensity running training is essential for success. Recovery between sessions is equally important to avoid staleness; and consequently any additional training will not necessarily be beneficial if it adds to fatigue rather than enhancing fitness.
If endurance runners wish to add strength sessions to their training programmes, they need to prioritise, ensuring each exercise in the routine is beneficial. Big weight lifting sessions, involving lots of exercises, taking more than an hour to complete, may be useful for a rugby player but wont help an endurance runner.
There are two key principles for endurance runners to bear in mind when including strength training into their programmes:
- Strength training should be introduced cautiously and progressed very gradually;
- Programmes must be time efficient and fit into the weekly running programme.
In this article I will describe the kind of strength programmes incorporated into the weekly training routines of two elite middle and long distance athletes throughout a training year: one an 800m runner and the other a 5000m specialist, both competing at senior international level and carrying out the kind of high mileage training you would expect.
For each programme, I will describe not just the content and volume of the exercises but the overall physiological goals of the programme, so that the purpose of each exercise is clear. And let me assure you from the outset that gaining muscle mass is not the main aim.
The 800m strength programme
The aims of strength training for this particular male 800m runner were:
- to increase the power of the leg muscles;
- to develop general strength to help prevent soft tissue injuries in the leg muscles.
It is probably fair to say that these will be the two most important goals for all 800m runners. Leg power is important to help promote the high maximum speed required for the event; and general strength in the hamstrings, calf and core help to increase the resistance of soft tissue to fatigue and strain. These were problems to which this athlete was particularly prone, in common with many other runners.
The exercises included in the programme were selected only if they served one of the above goals. Thus, there were no upper body strength exercises as the athlete did not feel he had anything to gain from increased upper body strength and did not want to risk gaining any upper body muscle mass. The programme was split into three distinct phases: off-season preparation; pre-competition peaking and competition maintenance.
Off-season preparation phase
The main aim of this off-season preparation phase, described in the table below, was to increase maximum leg strength in the powerful gluteal and quadriceps muscles. The front squat and one leg squat were used for this purpose and you can see that increasing the weight lifted was the goal for these exercises. This development of maximum strength lays the foundation for power to be developed later on in the training cycle.
In addition, hamstring, calf and core exercises were included for the purpose of injury prevention. You can see that progress was made in the strength endurance of these muscles with the increased reps performed. The one leg squat and one leg calf raise, both performed with barbell on the back, have the additional benefit of developing lateral pelvic stability and gluteus medius strength.
The strength session, completed twice a week, would be unlikely to lead to any significant muscle hypertrophy (increased mass) for two reasons:
- It is a very low volume routine, involving just four main leg exercises, with low repetitions of the two main barbell exercises;
- An endurance runner does so much running that the leg muscles will probably have little spare energy for building additional muscle. Body builders avoid endurance training at all costs so that all their spare energy can go into building muscle.
Plyometric exercises were performed once a week, introduced with light volume initially (75 foot contacts) and progressed very gradually in order to avoid injury. Plyometrics are very valuable exercises for runners as they are specific to the running action in terms of both movement and velocity. Their benefits include increased recruitment of the fast twitch fibres and greater elastic energy return from the tendons.
It is worth noting here that strength training strengthens tendons as well as muscles. I like to think of weights and plyometrics as enhancing the whole ‘muscle tendon unit’, which explains how this kind of training can play the dual role of improving performance and reducing injury risks in endurance runners.
The whole of the soft tissue adapts to the training and becomes more able to deal with strain and repetitive eccentric contractions, so reducing the risk of injury. In addition, the tendon is able to store and release more elastic energy so that the Achilles and knee tendons can contribute greater mechanical power to running speed.
|Strength session: twice a week|
|Front squat||4 x 5||Progressed to heavier weights (60-90kg)|
|One leg squats||3 x 5||Progressed to heavier weights (40-70kg)|
|Swiss ball hamstrings hip lift||3 x 10||Progressed to single leg, then increased reps|
|One leg barbell calf raise||3 x 10||Progressed to increased reps|
|Gluteal bridge (single leg)||3 x 30s||Progressed to 3 x 60s|
|Side plank||3 x 30s||Progressed to 3 x 60s|
|Reverse crunch||3 x 20||Progressed to adding weight to legs|
|The plank||3 x 30s||Progressed to 3 x 60s|
|Plyometric session: once a week|
|30cm drop and catch||3 x 5||Progressed to 30cm drop jump 4 x 5|
|Power skips||3 x 10||No progression|
|Ankle hops||3 x 10||No progression|
|Double hurdle hops||3 x 5||Progressed to 4 x 5|
|Total foot contacts||75||85|
Pre-competition peaking phase
The main aim of this phase was to develop maximum power of the leg extensor muscles and maintain the strength endurance developed in the hamstrings, calf and core. The sessions described below were each performed once a week, with the core exercises from the previous phase also maintained on a twice-weekly basis.
These two sessions combine plyometrics and weights exercises into a single workout, mostly because of the athlete’s desire to maximise recovery of the leg muscles. The benefits of the workouts were enhanced by using ‘complexes’ of weights and plyometrics exercises (eg front squat and hurdle hop in session 1 and one leg squat and speed bounds in session 2). Explosive strength exercises, like dynamic lunge drives and barbell squat jumps, were included to increase power, while the hamstring and calf exercises were retained from the previous phase for purposes of injury prevention.
Again, this kind of high quality, low volume explosive strength programme poses no risk of hypertrophy, given its low levels of repetitions. The main goal is to develop power with minimal fatigue.
|Drop jumps 40cm||4 x 5|
|Front squat + hurdle hop||3 x 5 + 5|
|Swiss ball hamstrings hip lift||3 x 20 each leg|
|One leg barbell calf raise||3 x 15|
|Dynamic lunge drives||3 x 3|
|Barbell squat jumps||3 x 5 + 5|
|One leg squat + speed bounds||3 x 20 each leg|
|Swiss ball hamstrings hip lift||4 x 5|
Competition maintenance phase
During the competitive season, when the athlete began racing seriously, his training volume and frequency changed again. The aim of this phase was to simply to maintain the level of power and general strength developed in the previous phases.
During this time, the athlete performed either session 1 or session 2 from the pre-competition phase (see table above) once a week, with no sessions performed within 5-6 days of a race. The weights were reduced slightly during this phase to minimise fatigue while maintaining quality and the core exercises were carried on as before.
The outcome of this programme was considered successful by the athlete in question, who increased his leg power (as measured by counter movement jump and drop jump performance) by 15% and suffered no significant soft tissue injuries during the training year, thus fulfiling both his training goals.
In addition, by focusing on a limited selection of exercises, using high quality and low volume training, he was able to complete all his running sessions and experienced no gains in muscle mass.
The 5k strength programme
The aims of strength training for this longdistance female runner were also to increase leg muscle/tendon power and reduce injury risk. But the training programme differed because she does not need – and probably can’t manage to produce – very high levels of leg power.
Long distance runners need to be very powerful in relation to their own body weight, but not as powerful as sprinters, who are heavier and stronger. In addition, this athlete had a limited strength training history and so needed a lighter programme than the 800m runner to ensure there were no adverse consequences to strength training. Her programme was structured as follows:
The strength session (see table below) was used to develop general strength in the leg muscles and tendons to help reduce injury risks and increase resistance to fatigue. The barbell stepup, involving the quadriceps and gluteals, was considered the main plank of this routine, and two hamstring exercises were selected as the athlete was particularly weak in this muscle group.
|Strength session – once weekly|
|Barbell step-up (40cm box)||3 x 8, progressing weight lifted|
|Swiss ball hamstring hip lift||3 x 10, progressing to 3 x 20|
|Calf raise (machine)||3 x 8, progressing to 3 x 15|
|Standing hamstring hip extension (band)||3 x 10 each leg|
|Dumbbell press||3 x 10, progressing weight lifted|
|Dumbbell row||3 x 10, progressing weight lifted|
|+ Core exercises eg side plank, bridge etc|
Upper body exercises were also included as she has very little upper body strength and felt that some gains in this area might help promote a more efficient arm action.
Overall, this programme, performed only once a week, is unlikely to result in hypertrophy for the same reasons stated above. An elite long distance runner, training twice a day, probably has very few spare calories available to build muscle. In addition, this low volume session, involving only six exercises once a week, was not enough to promote muscle mass and the athlete did not gain weight.
The plyometric session (see table below) was used to promote leg power. Research has demonstrated that when a similar explosive strength/plyometric programme was added to a 5k runner’s weekly programme, maximum speed and 5k performance improved by comparison with a control group who maintained a running-only programme(1).
|Plyometric session – once week|
|1. High knee skip drill||2 x 20 m|
|2. Knee pick up drill (using mini hurdles)||2 x10 hurdles|
|3. Fast knees-up drill||2 x 20 m|
|4. Power skips||3 x 10|
|5. Mini hurdle hops||3 x 8|
|6. Vertical jumps||3 x 8|
|7. sprints||4 x 30m|
This performance improvement was independent of any change in VO2max or lactate threshold, and the researchers concluded that the plyometric exercises had improved the stiffness and/or energy return of the leg tendons so that the runner was more economical as well as more powerful. This study also shows how the neuromuscular system contributes to endurance performance and must not be ignored in the training programme, which supports my previous arguments in favour of weights and plyometrics for the whole muscle tendon unit of endurance runners (see PP 186, September 2003).
Some of you may be surprised to see sprint drills and 30m sprints included in the plyometrics routine. For this athlete, the drills were there to promote sprint technique and served as a useful low impact warm-up before the plyometrics session.
Sprinting is a plyometric action
In fact, the 30m sprint was considered a plyometric exercise in its own right, as sprinting is essentially a plyometric action. The athlete aimed to accelerate as hard as she could during these sprints – a demanding exercise for long distance runners, who have limited acceleration.
The drills and sprints were seen, more specifically, as a means of boosting pace at the end of a race, which is crucial to success at international level. It is known that all members of the Ethiopian distance squad carry out drills and sprints on a weekly basis, and they have proven their ability to produce winning sprint finishes in international competition.
The strength session was usually performed on an easy running day, often the day after – but never the day before – an interval session. The plyometrics were usually performed immediately after a steady morning run, when the athlete was feeling warm but not too fatigued. Again, plyometrics were never performed on the day of – or day before – an interval session.
These timing provisions were there to ensure that the training was performed in a timeefficient manner, to maximise recovery, without compromising the quality of running training. For similar reasons, no strength or plyometrics session was performed within 5-7 days of a race, unless the race was not considered important and was being used only as a measure of fitness. The athlete ceased strength training two weeks before the major competition of the summer to ensure freshness for racing.
No changes in volume during the season were required for this particular athlete, but an athlete with a long strength training history would probably have been able to perform more work during a training session, reducing the volume as the season progressed.
The results of the programme were positive for the athlete, who succeeded in improving her jump power by around 15%.
The purpose of these two long-ish case histories is to show how strength training can most appropriately be added to an endurance runner’s weekly routine.
The aim of strength training – which includes both weights and plyometrics – is not to increase maximum strength or muscle mass but rather to boost leg muscle power (power being a different quality to strength), enhance elastic energy release from the tendons and promote general strength in the muscle tendon units and a stable core, with a view to preventing injuries.
A sensible approach, taking account of the volume of running training, is needed to ensure that the programme can be maintained on a long-term basis without compromising the running. I hope the examples above have illustrated how this can be achieved.
Remember, though, that these are individualised programmes for particular athletes I have been working with and that all athletes need their own customised programmes. Feel free to base your weights or plyometrics programmes on these examples, but make sure that any exercises you include are tailored to suit your particular needs and event.
Use these examples as a guide to the kind of training that is effective, not as a definitive strength training guide for endurance runners.
- Journal Applied Physiology, vol 86, pp 1527-1533, 1999
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